‘I’m an agnostic because I can see both sides,’ says UBC’s David Green.
Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.
The idea of adopting basic income in B.C. is appealingly simple.
During an era when the gap between rich and poor is reaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age, machines threaten to automate tens of millions of jobs and owning a home is becoming impossible, the idea that governments should make no-strings-attached cash payments to citizens struggling to survive seems to make sense.
That’s the basic logic of an idea that has been debated and tested in Canada for over 40 years and is at the centre of a potentially groundbreaking new $4-million study funded by the B.C. government.
The three-person expert committee leading the study will compile findings from about two-dozen independent research projects later this year.
It will also write an advisory report that could urge B.C. to go ahead with a pilot project where the government automatically tops up the paycheques of people earning below a set level.
But don’t count on seeing a B.C. basic income program yet.
David Green, the University of British Columbia economist chairing the committee, says he’s not passionately for or against the concept of a basic income and speculated that’s why he was chosen for the role.
“I’m an agnostic, because I can see both sides of the argument,” Green said in a recent interview in his office.
On the one hand, he said, it’s clear that our economic system isn’t working for large numbers of people. Many jobs, especially for younger people, are becoming precarious and poorly paid. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in B.C. grew by 24 per cent between 1990 and 2016, homelessness is up by 30 per cent in Metro Vancouver and welfare benefits are meager and hard to access.
Basic income could simplify our welfare system and immediately improve the economic well being of low-paid workers. “[It] seems like a natural answer, in some ways,” Green said.
But in other ways, basic income may be less than ideal. The cost alone could be a deal-breaker. One study estimated the gross cost of a national basic income program at $76 billion, which could be reduced by using the $32 billion the federal government currently provides to support low-income Canadians. (Supporters also argue a basic income program would reduce poverty and provide savings in other areas, like health care).
Even if B.C. mustered the political will to adopt basic income, there’s no guarantee a future government wouldn’t cut it. “So you can see I’m bouncing back and forth,” Green said.
The advice from the committee — which also includes Jonathan Rhys Kesselman from the Simon Fraser University and Lindsay Tedds from the University of Calgary — could affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the province.
Hugh Segal, a former Conservative senator and long-time advocate of basic income in Canada, told The Tyee that he’s “delighted and pleased as punch” with the expert committee’s mandate.
Experts outside the country are also watching. Ioana Marinescu, an economist at Penn University who has spoken with Green, said that if B.C. implemented a full-scale basic income program, “I’d be wowed in terms of what we can learn from it.”
‘The nature of work is changing’
The idea has been percolating in B.C. for years. Green leader Andrew Weaver supports a basic income and the commitment to test and study it was included in the Green-NDP co-operation agreement that allowed the New Democrats to form government.
In a 2016 interview with The Tyee, Weaver said that a basic income could help people survive in an economy shifting towards precarious, short-term jobs. “It’s clear the nature of work is changing,” he said.
Weaver hoped at the time to set up a multi-year pilot project in a medium-size community such as Prince Rupert, Port Alberni or Burns Lake. But when B.C. sought expert opinion on doing a pilot, some people raised fundamental questions about basic income. Green’s committee was set up to help find answers. (Weaver has accepted the decision to proceed with a study first.)
I asked Green which of the roughly two-dozen research projects he’s overseeing excites him the most.
One, he said, is taking a closer look at a claim often made by proponents of basic income: that the security of knowing essential needs will be met allows people to spend more time caring for family members, volunteering and doing other things not valued financially in our economy.
To test the evidence, UBC economist Craig Riddell and Waterloo University’s Chris Riddell will be combing through data on how people in Manitoba used their time when given basic income in the 1970s.
That pilot program, known also as “Mincome,” became known worldwide after University of Manitoba researcher Evelyn Forget tracked down thousands of boxes of data from the experiment in the basement of a Winnipeg archives and wrote a 2011 paper titled “The Town With No Poverty.”